Unitarianism Spreads among the Dissenting Churches:
The Arian Movement, 17031750


    The controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity, and the spread of Unitarian explanations of it, described in the last chapter, were wholly within the Church of England. At about the time that movement was dying out in the Church a similar one was beginning to arise among the Dissenting churches. As briefly told in an earlier chapter, ever since the time of Queen Elizabeth there had been many in England who did not feel that the reformation of the church had been carried far enough; and as they refused to conform to the appointed forms and rites of the Established Church they came to be known as Nonconformists. Some of these withdrew from the Church as early as 1616, and became known as Independents. Others, forming the Puritan party in the Church, came at length to be known as Presbyterians. During the Commonwealth the Nonconformists were in the majority, had control of the government, and had things their own way; but when the Episcopal Church was reestablished under Charles II, an Act of Uniformity was passed (1662), forbidding any public worship except that prescribed by the Church of England.

Any minister refusing to conform was required to give up his pulpit and his living. It was a tragic decision that they were required to make. It was to involve poverty, homelessness, fines, imprisonment, and even death, for many. The Nonconformists did not complain of the doctrines required; but they conscientiously objected to using certain forms which seemed to them Catholic superstitions, and to being re-ordained by bishops. The temptation to conform was almost irresistible; yet it was resisted by about 2,500 of the ablest, most learned, and most godly ministers of England, who with great regret left the Church forever. “But we must live,” said one whose conscience was weak, and who shrank from poverty, and was about to give in. “But we must die,” replied the other, remembering the account he must give to God for an undefiled conscience. The “Nonconformist conscience” became henceforth a fixed element in the moral life of England. The Act of Uniformity was reinforced by several others which made it unlawful for a Nonconformist to hold any municipal or government office, and forbade ministers to hold meetings or to come within five miles of their old churches.1 Under these acts 60,000 are said to have suffered punishment within the twenty-seven years during which the Act of Uniformity was enforced against them; property was taken away to the value of 2,000,000; and 8,000 are said to have died in prisons. Despite all this the Nonconformists largely increased in numbers, and won great respect from the church authorities. It was out of these conscientious and heroic Nonconformists that the first Unitarian churches in England were almost entirely made up.

When the Revolution came and William and Mary ascended the throne in 1688, one of the first steps taken was to pass the Toleration Act (1689), making the worship of Dissenters (as the Nonconformists now came generally to be called) lawful. An effort was also made to change the forms and rules of the Church to which they objected, so that they might all be included in its membership, and that England might have one great, broad church which should include practically all Protestants. High Churchmen bitterly opposed this “scheme of comprehension,” and even the Dissenters had misgivings about it. The plan fell through, and henceforth Protestant England was to be permanently divided into two great bodies. Under the Toleration Act the Dissenting congregations grew and flourished as never before; for nearly a generation of bitter persecution had only strengthened them and united them firmly together. They now built meetinghouses all over the land and worshiped openly, and by the end of the century they counted two million members, the most numerous and wealthy body of Christians in the kingdom.

The Dissenters were of three different denominations: the Presbyterians and the Independents of whom we have already spoken, and the Baptists who had succeeded the earlier Anabaptists. Besides these there were the Quakers, who kept steadily aloof from the rest, and were cordially hated by them. Of all these the Presbyterians, now at the height of their power, were about two-thirds. They had gradually grown more tolerant, and their Calvinism had lost its edge. The Independents were generally stricter in their views and narrower in their spirit. Still the two bodies were much alike, and differed more in name than in fact. Neither was so broad as the Church of England; but the Baptists were on the whole the most liberal of the three.

There was for a time some prospect that Dissenters generally might unite into one comprehensive Dissenting body over against the Church of England. In 1690 over eighty of the Presbyterian and Independent ministers in London drew up a plan of union, and some years later the Baptists joined them. They were known as the United Protestant Dissenters; but they did not long hold together. A doctrinal controversy soon arose, and within four years they had drifted hopelessly apart again into separate denominations. The point of difference was between extreme and moderate Calvinism. As to the Trinity they were all still orthodox; though already it might be foreseen that the Presbyterians would in the end take the side of liberty. After sketching this background we are now prepared to fill in the details of the development.

The first minister among the Dissenters to attract attention for his disbelief in the Trinity was Thomas Emlyn. He was born the year after Bidle’s death; and though his parents attended the Church of England, they leaned toward the Puritan party and had him educated for the ministry at a Dissenting academy. Conscience forbade him to conform to the Established Church, hence, after a few years he became minister of a small Presbyterian congregation at Lowestoft. Here he formed a friendship with a neighboring Congregational minister; and as it was at the period of the Trinitarian Controversy, they read and discussed together Sherlock’s Vindication 2 of the doctrine. The result was that Emlyn became an Arian and his friend a Socinian. Soon afterwards he was called to Dublin as joint minister of a large Presbyterian church, which he served acceptably for eleven years. He was somewhat ill at ease over his doctrinal views, but he kept them to himself, and confined himself to practical preaching. One of his congregation, noting at length that Emlyn never preached about the Trinity, began to scent heresy. He took it upon him to ask Emlyn what he believed, whereupon the latter gave an open and honest answer, and said he was willing to resign if it were desired. The matter was laid before the congregation, and conference was had with the other ministers of the city. They decided that he should withdraw for a time.

The church was unwilling to accept Emlyn’s resignation, but gave him leave of absence, and he went to London. In his absence he was violently attacked from the other pulpits, and on his return he felt bound to set forth and defend his views in An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ3 (1702). His position was much like that of Clarke: that God is supreme, so that Christ has only an inferior deity and deserves only inferior worship.4

Emlyn had intended to return at once to England; but before he could do so he was prosecuted at the instance of a zealous Baptist deacon, and tried for having in his book uttered an infamous and scandalous libel against Christ. His trial was carried on with great unfairness and prejudice, and resulted in conviction (1703). Refusing to retract he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 1,000, and was reminded that he was fortunate not to have been tried in Spain, where he would have been sent to the stake. Unable to pay his exorbitant fine, he lay in prison over two years, neglected of his former friends, and visited by but one of his brother ministers; but he occupied himself in writing, and in preaching on Sundays to his fellow prisoners. His fine was at length reduced to 70, besides 120 more which fell to the Bishop of Armagh under the law.

Emlyn was set free in 1705 and soon went to London, where he spent the rest of his life. He gathered a Dissenting congregation there, and for a number of years preached to them in Cutlers’ Hall without pay. Some of the orthodox complained of him, and urged that he be again brought to trial, but no action was taken, and at length his congregation scattered. He received much sympathy in London, and was held in high honor by many both in the Church and among the Dissenters as one that had suffered more than any other man of his time for freedom of conscience. Whiston and Clarke gave him their friendship, and he was intimate with them from the beginning of the Arian movement; but except two Baptist ministers no one was brave enough to invite him to preach in his pulpit. With his pen he entered actively into the controversy still raging over the Trinity, and his writings did much to interest Dissenters in the subject, and even before Whiston and Clarke to prepare them for the Arian point of view which was soon to spread so widely among them. In the cause of religious freedom he had yet greater influence, as people of all parties reacted in disgust from the religious narrowness and the persecuting spirit shown in his trial. He was the last Dissenter to suffer imprisonment for blasphemy under the English law. Time brought its vindication. Twenty-five years after Emlyn’s release from prison, his old congregation, which had fallen off from the day he left it, called a minister who inclined strongly to religious freedom, and who later became a leader of the Arian movement in the north of Ireland;5 within a half century it had itself become Arian, and at length it came fully into the Unitarian movement.

The controversy in the Church of England over the explanation of the persons in the Trinity had made little impression on the Dissenters, and indeed only one or two of them had taken part in it; for the Athanasian Creed which kept the subject constantly before the minds of Conformists was not used in the Dissenters’ worship. But the question of whether and how Christ was God, and what kind of worship should be paid to him, interested them deeply. This had been Emlyn’s question, but it was brought most forcibly to their attention by the writings of Whiston and Clarke; and the so-called Arian movement which they led had much less influence in their own Church of England than among the Dissenters, by whom Clarke was widely read. It was therefore in their quarter that the next long step was to be taken toward Unitarianism, as we shall now see.

The leaders of the movement were ministers who had become liberal while preparing for the ministry. They had not been able to attend the English universities, for students in those were required to be members of the Church of England or to subscribe its Articles, which as Dissenters they could not do. Hence some of them went to Dutch universities to study, and there they were bound to come under the influence of teachers and fellow students leavened with Socinian thought. Others attended Dissenting academies in England; for after the Nonconforming clergy had been ejected from their parishes in 1662 many of them turned to teaching; and some of the academies that thus grew up were in general subjects almost equal, and in theological and biblical teaching quite superior, to the universities, which were then at a low ebb. The academies especially insisted on free investigation of the Scriptures and on the use of reason, while they paid much less respect to the authority of the creeds. It is little wonder, then, that many of them became seedbeds for something like Arianism.

Besides Emlyn’s case in Ireland, there were a few other outbreaks of Arianism in England which attracted a little attention, and it was suspected that Arianism was secretly gaining ground to a considerable degree. It was at Exeter, however, that it was first recognized as a serious danger. The Dissenters had long been strong here, where they had several Presbyterian congregations jointly managed by a single committee. Three of the four ministers were liberal. The senior minister, who had studied in Holland, conducted an academy which had the seeds of heresy in it, for one of its students was a secret correspondent of Whiston’s. Another of the ministers, James Peirce, who had also studied in Holland, and had won high standing as a champion of the Dissenters, had long been a friend of Whiston, and had accepted Clarke’s view of the Trinity before settling at Exeter. Like Emlyn, he kept his opinions to himself, and preached only on practical subjects. After Peirce had preached at Exeter some years, a rumor got afloat that he and others were not sound on the Trinity, and he was asked to declare his belief. Though he protested that he was not an Arian, the beliefs he expressed were not satisfactory to the Exeter Assembly of Ministers. A violent controversy ensued. The attempt was made to compel subscription of the ministers to an orthodox statement about the Trinity. Peirce and several others refused to subscribe, holding that the ministers had no authority over one another’s private opinions. At a loss what step to take next, the Assembly appealed to the Dissenting ministers of London for advice, and these met to consider the matter, as we shall soon see; but before their answer was received, the committee locked Peirce and his colleague out of their pulpits and refused to let them preach further, and similar action was taken in several other churches of the region.

The two excluded ministers then formed a new church of their own,6 with a large congregation, and soon built a meetinghouse. Peirce, embittered by this experience, and broken in health, died a few years later,7 but his church went on. So did the cause he had espoused, beyond all expectation, stimulated rather than hindered by what had happened. Within a generation a known Arian was called to the pulpit from which Peirce had been excluded for Arianism; he in turn was succeeded by a decided Unitarian; and in 1810 Peirce’s church was reunited with the other. Many of the other churches in Devonshire moved fast and far in the same direction, and well before the end of the century Unitarianism was so far in the ascendant that even Arians were looked down on as idolaters for their worship of Christ.

What took place thus in the west of England is only an example of a similar movement among the Presbyterian and other churches of the rest of England, Wales, and Ireland, in the middle half of the eighteenth century. The movement was stimulated by the Exeter controversy. When the Exeter ministers appealed for advice to the Dissenting ministers of the three denominations in London, the latter met in assembly at Salters’ Hall8 in 1719, to the number of a hundred and fifty. The question laid before them was whether the holding of Arian opinions by a minister was sufficient reason for withdrawing fellowship from him. As to the main question, there was general agreement; but one of the conservative ministers proposed that before a vote were taken on this question all present should first prove their orthodoxy by subscribing to the doctrine of the Trinity. Doubtless not a few of the ministers, under the influence of Emlyn and Clarke, had already come seriously to waver as to this doctrine, while yet others did not feel sure as to the future. At all events, the motion was met by determined opposition, and was lost by a small majority.

The important thing is that the debate over this question led to a permanent split between the progressive and the conservative elements among the Dissenters, not over doctrine, but over the principle of freedom in religion. At Salters’ Hall in the main Presbyterians were strong against subscription, Independents strong for it, and Baptists about evenly divided; although in each of the denominations there were both orthodox believers and Arians in both camps. From this time forth for a generation the most burning question among Dissenters was the question as to subscription or non-subscription of creeds, which had first been raised at Exeter; the one party maintaining that ministers ought to be required to subscribe confessions of faith, the other that they ought to be left free. The controversy was long and heated, but the result was that within the next generation the ministers and congregations favoring subscription remained orthodox, and either conformed to the Church of England or else went over to the Independents; while the non-subscribers of the three denominations gravitated toward the Presbyterian side and became steadily more liberal.

With required subscription to creeds now out of the way, there was little to control the Presbyterian ministers. Doctrinal changes went on rapidly among them, and their people followed them. Doctrines of the creeds found not to be in the Scriptures were first neglected, then soon disbelieved and forgotten. Disuse of the Westminster Catechism gradually became general. All through the middle of the century Arian views spread rapidly and widely; and these in their turn led to Unitarian views. In less than two generations from the Salters’ Hall controversy practically all the churches that still kept the Presbyterian name had abandoned the Trinitarian faith; and from this source came nearly all the oldest churches which later organized together in the English Unitarian movement of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the eighteenth century these liberal Presbyterian churches far outstripped the rest of the Dissenters in the ability and scholarship of their ministers, in the culture, wealth, and social influence of their members, and in public life and public service; but they were not effectively organized, and they made little new growth in numbers or strength.

Another liberal drift, very similar to that among the Presbyterians, was going on independently at about the same time among the General Baptists.9 A generation before the case of Peirce at Exeter an attempt, several times repeated, had been made to exclude from Baptist fellowship a minister whose views were more or less Unitarian. Though the Assembly disapproved his views, they refused to exclude him, thus declaring for liberty of belief. The orthodox minority thereupon seceded for a time; but the denomination steadily grew more liberal in belief, and most of its churches, like the Presbyterians and not a few of the liberal Independents, eventually joined the Unitarian movement.

The discussion begun at Salters’ Hall was not long in spreading to the Presbyterians in Wales and Ireland. In Wales Calvinism had begun to decay early in the eighteenth century, giving way first to Arminian and then to Arian views. The movement, as had been the case in England, was stimulated by a Dissenting academy at Carmarthen, which was now supported largely by Presbyterian funds from London. Before the middle of the century many of its students, doubtless influenced by the writings of Emlyn and Clarke, had become Arian, and from that time on their views rapidly spread. As in England, nearly all the old Presbyterian as well as several General Baptist congregations gave up their belief in the Trinity; and as Arianism faded away Unitarianism succeeded it, and many new churches of that faith were founded. In Cardiganshire they were so numerous that the orthodox gave vent to their feelings over the situation by naming that region “the black spot.” The number of Welsh Unitarian congregations today is between thirty and forty.

In Scotland liberal influences were felt at the universities, and spread thence into Ireland, whence many young men had come to study for the ministry; but though there were for a time several sporadic movements toward the end of the century, Unitarianism in any form did not take firm root until well on in the nineteenth century.

In the north of Ireland Presbyterianism had been organized among the inhabitants of Scotch origin (the Scotch-Irish) in 1642, and subscription to creeds had never been required. But after Emlyn’s trial, and while he was still in prison, in order to guard against the spread of his beliefs in northern Ireland, it was voted in 1705, in face of strong opposition, to require subscription to the Westminster Confession from all ministers seeking ordination.10 The Rev. John Abernethy, who had just declined a call to succeed Emlyn at the Dublin church, now settled at Antrim, and soon gathered about him an association of ministers. Meeting together during some years they came to agree in opposing subscription, and to take open ground against it. In the controversy that followed for six or seven years they were named the “New Lights,” and this name clung to the Irish and Scotch liberals for a full century.11 Friction between them and the orthodox increased so much that in 1725 the synod set the non-subscribers apart into a Presbytery of Antrim by themselves, and the next year excluded them from the synod altogether, the ministers in the synod being nearly equally divided, but the elders strongly conservative. It was suspected that many of the non-subscribers were inclined to Arianism; but the issue here was precisely what it had been at Salters’ Hall.

This victory of the orthodox did little to stop the spread of heresy. Many of the ministers in the Synod of Ulster remained out of sympathy with required subscription, and the feeling against it steadily grew. In the course of the century the practice of subscribing gradually decayed or was evaded more and more even among the orthodox. Arian views spread correspondingly; and after the law against deniers of the Trinity was repealed in 1817, Unitarian doctrines began to be preached openly. This at length roused the orthodox into action, and after a bitter controversy it was again voted in 1828 to insist upon subscription. The non-subscribers then withdrew and in 1830 formed a Remonstrant synod, suffering considerable persecution in consequence. Presbyterian churches had always been very few in the south of Ireland, but a similar movement went on in the churches there. To anticipate here, and bring the story down to the present day, it may be added that in 1907 the various bodies of Unitarians in the north of Ireland united to form the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, which though Presbyterian in name and form of government is Unitarian in belief, and is associated with the Unitarian churches of Great Britain. The number of congregations is about forty.

We have now reached the point where in the third quarter of the eighteenth century a large number of the Dissenting ministers and churches of Great Britain and Ireland had become practically Unitarian. They were no longer bound to accept a particular creed, they had come to a generous tolerance of differences of belief, they had left the doctrine of the Trinity behind, and they were coming to accept the full humanity of Jesus. Still their movement in this direction had been so slow and gradual that they hardly realized how far they had come, or whither they were bound. They were but a loosely connected group of churches, and they had taken no definite step to show just what they stood for; they were conscious of no common body of doctrine; they had no recognized leader or common rallying point; and they had no clear vision or plan for the future. They were like a stream that has broadened out until it is likely to sink into the ground and be lost unless it can be led together again into a well marked channel. In short, they needed a leader and a spokesman, and a name and a recognized cause to rally about. In the fullness of time these two needs were now to be supplied, in the persons of the two men of whom the next two chapters will speak.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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